Fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) with rRNA-targeted oligonucleotide probes is a method that is widely used to detect and quantify microorganisms in environmental samples and medical specimens by fluorescence microscopy. Difficulties with FISH arise if the rRNA content of the probe target organisms is low, causing dim fluorescence signals that are not detectable against the background fluorescence. This limitation is ameliorated by technical modifications such as catalyzed reporter deposition (CARD)-FISH, but the minimal numbers of rRNA copies needed to obtain a visible signal of a microbial cell after FISH or CARD-FISH have not been determined previously. In this study, a novel competitive FISH approach was developed and used to determine, based on a thermodynamic model of probe competition, the numbers of 16S rRNA copies per cell required to detect bacteria by FISH and CARD-FISH with oligonucleotide probes in mixed pure cultures and in activated sludge. The detection limits of conventional FISH with Cy3-labeled probe EUB338-I were found to be 370 ± 45 16S rRNA molecules per cell for Escherichia coli hybridized on glass microscope slides and 1,400 ± 170 16S rRNA copies per E. coli cell in activated sludge. For CARD-FISH the values ranged from 8.9 ± 1.5 to 14 ± 2 and from 36 ± 6 to 54 ± 7 16S rRNA molecules per cell, respectively, indicating that the sensitivity of CARD-FISH was 26- to 41-fold higher than that of conventional FISH. These results suggest that optimized FISH protocols using oligonucleotide probes could be suitable for more recent applications of FISH (for example, to detect mRNA in situ in microbial cells).